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Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Studies in Cultural History) Paperback – February 1, 1992
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Butler's fine scholarly summary of the first three centuries of Christian experience in America is both well researched and very readable. Butler ranges widely, showing how the elitist Christianity of early modern Europe co-existed with belief in magic and the occult and also discussing 18th-century church establishment in America, the negligible impact of the Great Awakening, the impact of the American Revolution on religion, and the democratization of 19th-century American religion. While many of his theses are arguable, they are all impressively defended. Recommended for large public and academic libraries.
- Susan A. Stussy, St. Norbert Coll., De Pere, Wis.
Copyright 1989 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
Throughout, the richness of detail, nuance, and illustration is superb and often eye-opening...In all, it is a daring work of synthesis...meticulously researched...This book ranks among the most challenging and far-ranging historical analyses of religion in America to date. (Leigh Eric Schmidt Journal of Church and State)
This is one of those rare books that historians await impatiently for years. It is also one of those rare and remarkable books that prove worth the wait. It fulfills extravagantly the promise of those pathbreaking and pugnacious articles that made magic an essential reality of the seventeenth century and the Great Awakening an interpretive fiction of the eighteenth. It is, by far, the best account we have of early American religious life, and the most radiantly original. (Michael Zuckerman Journal of the Early Republic)
Anyone who wants to know about religion in America up to the Civil War would do well to read Jon Butler's rich, comprehensive and--it must be said--contentious account. (David Martin Times Literary Supplement)
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Butler's chapters make the points that religious practice was not an organic evolution in the colonies. The governments were actively involved in dictating religious practices of their citizens. Dissenting beliefs and behavior were not welcome to the early colonies with the exception of Rhode Island and Pennsylvania which adopted more lenient libertine laws concerning religion. Religious practice was not standard throughout the colonies nor was it universal among the residents of the colonies. Butler also elaborates on the presence of magic and the occult in the New World of North America. Christians were militant against non-Christian spirituality, occult or magic. These were deemed to occur through diabolical means and were treated as such by the young governments and were later dismissed by children of the Enlightenment.
Butler's treatment of religion and slavery reveals the contradicting tension between the doctrines of Christianity and the practice of slavery. Religion was central to the argument for or against slavery. The practices of religion in the slaveholding colonies had to deal with whether to evangelize and educate the slaves and then whether to allow whites and blacks to worship together. Butler discusses the ways that whites manipulated the Scriptures to accommodate slavery. He illustrates the effect that the slavery argument had on compromising the Christian integrity of churches, as they defended and facilitated slavery
American revivalism was not a single denominational movement that sparked Christianity in the colonies. It was but another stream of religion besides the state church tradition of the establishmentarian Anglican and Congregationalists traditions. The American Revolution brought a shift in the religious landscape as Anglican ministers who supported the crown fled and as a new patriotism competed with religion or merged with it. Following the Revolution, American church leaders renewed efforts to stamp Christian values on a new independent society as a priority for the success of the infant republic.
The religious laws in Virginia illustrate Butler's thesis that religion in the colonies was initially a government sponsored institution. This is not the religious freedom one usually associates with the New World. In the 1670's it was the church-state alliance that provided the stability and authority of the Anglican Church in Virginia. The Virginia Assembly mandated Anglican churches in every county and dictated the processes for vestry elections and taxation on behalf of the church. As a result, Anglican churches, benefiting from compulsory taxes, accounted for every one of the colony's new churches constructed between 1680 and 1720.
What also becomes apparent in Butler's writing is that it was the Deist language of the Declaration of Independence that laid the foundation of religious freedom in the United States rather than the influence of the various Christian movements. It was the secular Revolution and not the religious ties of the colonists that bound the colonies together. Butler argues against historians' claims that evangelicalism was behind the sentiments and boldness behind the revolution. He claims that the Declaration of Independence provides clear-cut evidence of the secondary and supportive role that religion and Christianity played in creating and solidifying the revolutionary struggle.
In the latter chapters of his book, Butler describes the religious movements that largely resemble what we see in the United States today. Following the American Revolution, the acts of the new country allowed for religious freedom and expression. This freedom from coercion and establishment led to new denominations and even new religions like Unitarianism and Mormonism springing up.
Butler points out a new syncretism between popular supernaturalism and Christianity. The interest in spiritualism and desire for supernatural experience led to the popularity of groups like the Swedenborgs, Freemasons, Mesmerists and other spiritualists. Butler highlights four institutional expressions of the religious climate of the new country. These were Methodism, Mormonism, Afro-American Christianity and spiritualism. Butler asserts that region, class and race all constrained the religious tendencies of Americans.
Butler also asserts that denominations gained adherents through coercion and authority. He suggests that denominations "manipulated" systems of denominational meetings to further establish power and influence. Denominations shaped evangelization and the development of new congregations, often through the use of the itinerant preacher. According to Butler, denominations used books and publications to influence and expand authority.
Butler also points to a plethora of reform societies and mostly Christian colleges as contributing to the influence of religion on the society. He assigns a coercive nature to the reform societies that also used print publication to gain audiences and influence. According to Butler, immigrants and indigenous groups contributed greatly to the religious pluralism of the country. This change along with religious renewal, revival and schism brought forth hosts of new groups and new worshippers to the landscape.
For Butler, coercion is the main ingredient of American religious tradition. He seems to think the Christian history is void of God-initiated or lay-initiated growth. This might seem a harsh assessment of his perspective, but I conclude that it is only the censored spiritual movements like occult, voodoo, African rituals and natural theology that Butler thinks are "grass-root" developments. Actual growth of Christianity is due to institutional-hierarchical manipulation and coercion. Even his treatment of the development of Black churches is clouded by Butler's assertion that these were havens of African pagan-ritual as much as Christianity. The expansion of Christianity westward seems to be deemed nothing better than an entrepreneurial movement to claim new markets; the idea of the Christian desire for evangelization for the sake of saving the lost seems foreign to Butler's historical assessment. His concluding treatment of Abraham Lincoln is indicative of his worldview revealed in this book. Lincoln could not possibly have been a sincere Christian; after all, look at what he said here or there.
Butler's book does open a new window to the religious history of American. I think he fails to look into the heart of Christianity in general but sees it from the outside and judges it according to his own worldview and inclinations. His willingness to assess the history from a view other than the normal chronological path is helpful to see the patterns of religious growth and transformations. His book definitely provides me with a more elucidated perspective of our pluralistic landscape today.
Butler begins by describing the religious heritage that colonists brought with them from Europe. A low level of Christian understanding and practice characterized Europe. This religious apathy was then transferred to colonial America and the development of Christianity was a slow process. The Virginia and Maryland colonies experienced a lack of religious participation and in Puritan New England, Butler points out, by the 1680s the decline in church membership was real not imaginary. This is not to say that religion was nowhere to be found in colonial America, but rather colonists turned to other forms of practice. Butler treats magic and the occult seriously, using witchcraft, magic, and astrology to reveal the extent and importance of non-Christian belief in America, even though it was prohibited by law. Therefore, Butler examines a component of American religion that is frequently ignored by the mainstream, Christian only, historiography.
According to Butler, American society and religion underwent enormous change between 1680 and 1760. The state church tradition, led by Anglicans, reasserted authority to such a degree that Butler contends this period marked the beginning of American Christianity. It was visible through a surge in church construction, and dissenter established elaborate denominational institutions. Here, Butler departs from the accepted prominence of New Puritanism and transfers it to the Church of England resurgence in Virginia and elsewhere. At the same time, Butler explains, enslaved Africans were having their religious practices destroyed. The only religious alternative for slaves, therefore, was to turn to Christianity. Even though their systems were destroyed, slaves kept individual practices alive and a collective Christianity began to emerge among slaves that became more Afro-American after 1800 than it was before. Here, Butler really challenges general assumptions. As white Americans turned back to the Church of England for inspiration, slaves turned back to Africa. Butler also links the rise of slave ownership with the development of Christianity and shows how the two impacted one another. Butler shows how English Anglicans shaped the slaveholding ethic, emphasizing black obedience and white paternalism, which became important for rationalizing slavery in America.
Butler views the American Revolution as a secular event. Soldiers showed little enthusiasm for religion and indifference was common in the camps. After independence, church and denominational leaders renewed efforts to make the United States a Christian nation. This involved an attack on Deism that was "suspiciously commonplace among the new nation's political and social leaders" (p. 218). As a result, by 1800 American Christianity was expanding as it never had before. Butler explains the rise of religious pluralism by looking at Methodists, Mormons, Afro-American Christianity, and spiritualism. Religion became more voluntary. By the time of the Civil War, America was becoming a "spiritual hothouse" according to Butler, with a variety of religious traditions taking hold.
By departing from the Puritan domination in America's religious history, Butler brings relief from the Puritan stranglehold. There are advantages to this. Butler steps away from Jonathan Edwards and Ralph Waldo Emerson and gives voice to others that have been overlooked in Puritan-centered studies; such as slave narratives. Butler compares the number of churches and churchgoers and finds that the Puritans were in the minority. Butler also shows that religion continued to grow in American even after the Puritans had departed from the scene. On the other hand, there are disadvantages to this approach. Even though Puritans were in the minority, they left a formal written theology that served to influence generations that followed. The new nation borrowed ideas from the Puritans. Butler, by comparing the rise of slave ownership with that of Christianity, makes a dangerous analogy. Did Christianity cause racism or were American Christians racists? It seems that racism had other origins besides religion. Nevertheless, Butler has given us reason to look outside of Puritan culture to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to help explain America's religious history.